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Words Dec. 30

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Oh, those copy editors: David Shaw, media critic for the Los Angeles Times, recalled media mishaps of the past year, including this one: “Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, described Richard Strauss’ epic opera ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten’ as ‘an incomparably glorious and goofy pro-life paean’ in a February review. Unfortunately, ‘pro-life’ in his review was changed to ‘anti-abortion’ in the published version, even though abortion is not an issue in the opera, which ‘extols procreation,’ as the Times acknowledged in a correction the next day. Even more unfortunately, a second correction was required the following day to point out that the first correction had ‘incorrectly implied’ that it was the reviewer who had characterized the work as ‘anti-abortion.’ ” “I was surprised to see the word ‘illegitimate’ used in an Arkansas Times review of the movie ‘Blade: Trinity.’ The reviewer referred to Jessica Biel’s character as Abe Whistler’s ‘illegitimate daughter.’ It’s a rather antiquated use of the word, not one I’d expect in a modern publication like the Times. Referring to children born out of wedlock as ‘illegitimate’ went out in the ’50s, if not before then. Children, no matter whether their parents are married or not, are not ‘illegitimate,’ a word usually associated with drugs or weapons.” I wouldn’t quarrel with this gentleman’s sentiments, only with his usage. Illegitimate as a description of certain offspring did not pass from the language in the ’50s, nor at any time since. I’ve checked several dictionaries, including the on-line American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published in 2000, and every one gives “Born out of wedlock” as one definition of illegitimate. None of them labels this usage “archaic” or “taboo” or any of the other qualifiers that lexicographers attach to words that aren’t fully accepted. Yes, one definition of illegitimate — one of the five listed in American Heritage — is “Against the law; illegal.” That doesn’t invalidate the word’s other uses. Communication would be simpler if every word had only one meaning, but English doesn’t work that way. Come to think of it, the use of illegitimate probably increased in the ’50s. That was a time when people were growing more sensitive to “bastard.”

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